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22 of the best historical fiction novels to help you escape to the past

Explore our round-up of the best historical fiction novels – from royal intrigues and grand adventures, to ghost stories, social commentaries and alternate histories

Historians have chosen their favourite historical novels.

If you are hankering for something new to read that’s a bit more escapist than the best history books, we’ve rounded up 22 of the best fictional reads set in the past.

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First, we asked nine expert historians and authors to share with us their favourite historical novels – here’s what they recommended:

1

March Violets by Philip Kerr

March Violets by Philip Kerr

Chosen by Roger Moorhouse, a historian and author specialising in modern German and Central European history

In all historical fiction authenticity is key, and that requires both a deft touch and a considerable gift for research. The late Philip Kerr had both, and his debut March Violets, which was first published in 1989, recreated the political and emotional universe of Nazi Germany – and specifically Berlin – with an attention to detail that few other authors have matched.

The story – of corruption in the SS set against the backdrop of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 – is a rattling, prize-winning read, that oozes atmosphere and is chock-full of historical figures. It was also notable for introducing to the world the brilliant character of Bernie Gunther, the sympathetic yet hard-bitten detective, who would feature in so many of Kerr’s later works.


2

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

Chosen by Dan Jones, an award-winning historian of the Middle Ages

People don’t often class James Ellroy as a historical writer – thanks to books like LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia he gets pegged as pure crime. That misses his strength as a novelist steeped in the past and a nonpareil historical muck-raker.

American Tabloid opens a trilogy depicting the hellish underworld of US history in the 1950s and 1960s – a world of sleaze, corruption, collusion and political scandal. It owes much to Don DeLillo’s Libra, showing the JFK assassination as the product of historical confluence as much as criminal conspiracy. But it is written in Ellroy’s uniquely staccato, foulmouthed and ribald American argot. I re-read it every few years and the effect never goes stale. It’s as bracing and disconcerting as being punched in the face.


3

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Chosen by Sarah Gristwood, a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist and broadcaster

Historical fiction comes in many forms, and Virginia Woolf believed she was inventing a new one with Orlando. Subtitled ‘A Biography’, its eponymous hero was based on Virginia’s own lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Orlando’s home on Vita’s ancestral home of Knole – but there’s a twist. Born in time to become a favourite of Elizabeth I, Orlando is magically still young and vital on the date of the book’s publication, 11 October 1928. By that time the hero has become a heroine; but, crucially, changing his/her sex without losing her inheritance. (Vita’s tragedy was that, as a girl, she could never inherit her beloved Knole.)

Gender fluidity and questions of identity apart, this is a glorious romp through the sexy 17th and elegant 18th centuries, through the frowstiness of Victorian values into the age of the aeroplane.


4

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

Chosen by Laurence Rees, a former head of BBC TV history programmes, and the founder, writer and producer of WW2History.com

Kaputt is a novelized version of Curzio Malaparte’s experiences during the Second World War. It can’t be classed as a work of pure history because Malaparte’s imaginative gifts move the book into a kind of half world between fact and fiction.

The combination of Malaparte’s slight detachment as an Italian journalist, together with his personal perceptiveness, allows us to see key figures of the war in an original light. His impression of the Romanian politician Mihai Antonescu, for instance, was that “no other eyes in the world resemble a snake’s eyes more than Mihai Antonescu’s”.

Malaparte is also a descriptive writer of genius. For example, the picture he paints of the Warsaw Ghetto is heart-breaking: “the faces of women and children seemed made of paper. In every face there was already the bluish shadow of death.”

Kaputt is by some measure the finest novel I’ve ever read about the war.


5

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

Dr Helen Rappaport is a Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author and historian specialising in the period 1837–1918 in late imperial and revolutionary Russia and Victorian Britain

I have to start with a confession: I don’t like historical fiction. As a historian, I am so hard-wired to facts and the truth that anachronistic language and context in fictional versions of real history really irritate me. In my own specialist field I have a pathological aversion to Romanov novels. Why make it up when you can tell the real story?

That said, I have enjoyed a few historical novels in the Victorian pastiche genre. For me the standout book is the one that set the trend back in 1989 and that is Charles Palliser’s imaginative epic, The Quincunx. I bought the hardback hot off the press and became so engrossed that I had to ration myself to 50 pages a day so that I did not finish it too quickly.

Many have followed, notably The Crimson Petal and the White and The Meaning of Night, but, 31 years on, the sheer energy, inventiveness and attention to detail of The Quincunx make it my enduring favourite.


6

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

Chosen by Antonia Senior, a journalist and writer who reviews historical fiction for The Times

We fall in love most passionately with the books we read as adolescents. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault has been part of my life since I was 15, re-read countless times. Set in Athens during the 5th century BC it is narrated by Alexias, a boy growing to manhood.

The wars against Sparta dominate the political landscape. Alexias meets Lysis, an older man, and the two embark on a passionate love affair. Together, they talk of love and beauty with Socrates. They join the Athenian cavalry, and then its navy, as the Peloponnesian War stretches on, ravaging Greece.

As the city is led to disaster by the sulky and beautiful General Alcibiades, headstrong Alexias and steadfast Lysis live through it all. They are real and vivid characters in a world so fully realised that it seems ludicrous Renault was not there, a living witness to all the grandeur and hubris of Athens.


7

Sovereign by CJ Sansom

Sovereign by CJ Sansom

Chosen by Tracy Borman, a historian, broadcaster and author specialising in the Tudor period

I am a huge fan of the long-running Shardlake series. Thanks to Sansom’s impeccable research and exceptional writing, they vividly conjure up the dangerous and volatile world of Henry VIII’s later years – and, most recently, the reign of his ‘precious jewel’, Edward VI. The ‘crook-backed’ lawyer Matthew Shardlake is a brilliant if unlikely protagonist, ably assisted in the first few books by his irreverent sidekick, Jack Barak. It is virtually impossible to choose a favourite from among this utterly compelling series, but Sovereign is hard to beat.

Set in the autumn of 1541, it focuses on the events surrounding Henry VIII’s progress to the rebellious north with his pretty (but adulterous) new wife, Katherine Howard. It is not long before Shardlake is on the trail of a brutal murderer and becomes embroiled in a plot that questions the legitimacy of the entire Tudor dynasty.


8

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek

Chosen by Helen Carr, a medieval historian specialising in the 14th and 15th centuries

In south-west England, 1348, a band of travellers moves towards the coast. They are an unexpected party: a group of archers, a noble lady who is trying to escape a loveless marriage, a serf who has worked on her father’s land and dreams of battle, and a cleric. They come together out of necessity and a shared destination – Calais.

Little do they know, as they move towards what they think will be a better life across the English Channel – war, wealth, love and glory – they move closer to the Black Death, the biomedical disaster that crippled the western world. The disease has already claimed millions of lives and now it creeps towards the English coast, the same way the party moves. As their stories intertwine and they grow closer together, the people and places they encounter on their journey are falling apart.

This is a story of love, loss, friendship and determination, set within the harsh reality of the 14th century.


9

Imperial Governor by George Shipway

Imperial Governor by George Shipway

Chosen by Professor Gary Sheffield, one of Britain’s foremost military historians specialising in Britain at war, 1914–45

I first read this novel of Boudica’s rebellion of AD 60 in my early teens, and it ignited a fascination with the history of the Roman Empire which has never left me. The story is in the form of the memoirs of Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor of the frontier province of Britain.

Suetonius Paulinus bears a distinct resemblance to a British soldier/colonial official of the early-mid 20th century, not surprisingly as Shipway served as a cavalry officer in India. While this has its anachronistic drawbacks, it gives an insight into colonial mentalities which is plausible in an ancient context.

Above all, Imperial Governor is a terrific adventure story, laced with politics and realistic battle scenes. More than 50 years after its publication, it remains an excellent read.

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A pile of books

Plus, here are 13 more recommendations, chosen by the staff of HistoryExtra, BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed.

10

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Chosen by Susanne Frank, Group Art Editor, BBC History Magazine

Young doctor Andrei’s life is turned upside down when he has to treat the son of a senior secret police officer. All him and his wife Anna want is to rebuild their lives in 1950s’ Leningrad, but their path is headed for pain, fear, loss and some of the most difficult decisions anyone could face. The masterful storytelling conveys the horrors of Stalin’s totalitarian regime as well as people’s personal struggles and emotions.


11

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

Chosen by Emma Slattery Williams, Staff Writer, BBC History Revealed

The second installment in the Fairmile series, Dark Tides follows the exploits of the Tidelands family across Restoration London, the early frontiers of New England and the glamour of Venice. In 1670, Alinor receives two visitors at her shabby home along the Thames – one her ex-lover who abandoned her many years ago, and the other, a woman claiming to be her daughter- in-law with news of her son’s death. Alinor is convinced this woman is an impostor and seeks advice from her brother, who is trying to forge a new life in the New World.


12

The Dig by John Preston

The Dig by John Preston

Chosen by Dave Musgrove, Content Director, HistoryExtra

I really enjoyed reading The Dig by John Preston. It’s a story that’s being retold in film by Netflix, which is how I came to the book. Preston artfully imagines the human drama of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the summer before the outbreak of the Second World War. For anyone at all interested in archaeology, early medieval history, or indeed the wartime period, it’s got something for you.


13

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Chosen by Elinor Evans, Acting Digital Editor, HistoryExtra

Hamnet was one of the most talked-about books of 2020, winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction and making many lists of the year’s best books. It’s a devastating and wrenching read, named for playwright William Shakespeare’ son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. If the name sounds familiar, that is because (as an author’s note explains) in the 16th century the names Hamnet and Hamlet were considered interchangeable, and O’Farrell’s work imagines how the legacy of the boy’s untimely death brought his father to write his great play. But don’t expect a story of the playwright himself – he is never named, at various points only “father,” “son,” and “husband” to Agnes, who is the real heart of the book. A beautiful and sensory novel that explores grief, connection and evokes the contained domesticity of rural Elizabethan life.


14

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Chosen by Rhiannon Davies, Sub-Editor, BBC History Magazine

If you’re a fan of historical fiction and horror, then look no further than Alma Katsu’s The Hunger. Following the infamous Donner party, who set out in their wagons in search of California, the familiar tale soon descends into the supernatural, and paints a very disturbing picture of the fate that befell the unfortunate colonists.


15

Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson

Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson

Chosen by Emma Slattery Williams, Staff Writer, BBC History Revealed

In the year 1349, England is being ravaged by plague and thousands of people are lying dead in its wake. A 16-year-old novice friar, Brother Diggory, is chosen to take on the terrifying task of tending to the afflicted without the knowledge to help him. Nobody can make sense of this sickness and the Church, doctors and authorities are all helpless to stop it. Diggory soon comes to realise that this challenge will be unlike anything he’s encountered before and that living through an illness is very different from understanding it.


16

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Chosen by Ellie Cawthorne, Podcast and Books Editor, BBC History Magazine

From Fingersmith and Affinity to The Night Watch and The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters is the master of perfectly-observed historical fiction, with something unsettling always bubbling just under the surface. Set shortly after the Second World War, The Little Stranger follows strange goings-on at Hundreds Hall, an isolated stately home whose inhabitants find themselves increasingly redundant in a modernising society. It’s ostensibly a ghost story, but the real spectre here is the British class system, crumbling just as quickly as Hundreds Hall itself.


17

Pavane by Keith Roberts

Pavane by Keith Roberts

Chosen by Kev Lochun, Deputy Editor, BBC History Revealed & Digital Section Editor, HistoryExtra

Blending historical fiction with sci-fi, Pavane is a collection of short stories set in an alternate history, one in which the Spanish Armada had reached England and won the subsequent war. In this imagining, Elizabeth I has been assassinated but Spanish power has already faded, leaving a world in which feudal rule persists, electricity is banned, and Papacy holds secular as well as spiritual power…


18

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Chosen by Emma Slattery Williams, Staff Writer, BBC History Revealed

During the chaotic early 17th century in England, Nat Davy realises at the age of ten that he won’t grow tall like the other boys – he’s different. He is soon hurtled into the realm of the royal court and gifted to the new Queen of England, Henrietta Maria – a young woman in a foreign country who’s as lonely as he. An unlikely friendship blossoms between the two as they navigate the scary world of the Civil Wars. The Smallest Man is inspired by the true story of the court dwarf Jeffrey Hudson, who could be found in the court of Charles I.


19

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Chosen by Elinor Evans, Acting Digital Editor, HistoryExtra

A sumptuous look at the icons of Manhattan’s high society scene in the mid-20th century, Swan Song dips and weaves around the lives of writer Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ – his name for the six women who formed his glittering and exclusive social set. From the elegant and tragic Babe Paley (married to the head of NBC) to Lee Radziwill (sister to Jackie, who married a president), the six women nourish Capote with status, prestige, travel – and gossip. In turn, his acidic barbs and novel affectations bring delight and unpredictability to the group; Capote and his eccentricities are loved by all. And yet, when many of the stories and confidences fed to Capote appear in the pages of Esquire, in his barely fictionalised excerpt La Côte Basque 1965, the women cut him loose in brutal fashion.

It’s the story of Capote’s rise and fall, the narrative circling in and out of the writer’s life as the women did, each vividly written Swan telling some portion of the story and taking readers from Studio 54 to the Riviera. Full of figures who are narcissistic, flawed and sometimes downright vicious, Swan Song is an immersive read that will have you questioning real histories versus the ones we create for ourselves.


20

The Underground Railroad by Colston Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colston Whitehead

Chosen by Ellie Cawthorne, Podcast and Books Editor, BBC History Magazine

Whitehead’s 2017 novel follows formerly-enslaved woman Cora, as she seeks to evade the clutches of ruthless slave catcher Ridgeway across the antebellum South. The narrative hinges on a bold and inventive premise in which the metaphorical ‘underground railroad’ (in reality a network of agents who helped escaped slaves) is transformed into a literal subterranean system of trains, tracks and tunnels. While you could argue this throws us into the realm of fantasy rather than historical fiction, Whitehead uses the device to expose the brutal and terrifying historical realities of the era.


21

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Chosen by Susanne Frank, Group Art Editor, BBC History Magazine

If you’re looking for an escapist adventure story set against a backdrop of real history, I can’t recommend this Booker Prize-shortlisted novel highly enough. We follow the titular character from his childhood on a Barbados plantation, as he escapes in a new-fangled flying machine, and on his many hair-raising adventures across the world. Washington’s voice guides us through his experience of the world in the 19th century, and explores themes of freedom, progress and friendship.


22

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Chosen by Kev Lochun, Deputy Editor, BBC History Revealed & Digital Section Editor, HistoryExtra

Better known most recently for The Last Kingdom series set in Anglo-Saxon England, and before that the Napoleonic era Sharpe novels, my favourite of Bernard Cornwell’s stories are the Warlord Chronicles, a retelling of the rise and fall of King Arthur. The Winter King is the first in a tightly plotted trilogy, told through the eyes of the warrior Derfel, in which the typical fantasy elements you may ascribe to the Arthurian romance largely give way to geopolitics and courtly intrigues.


Looking for more recommendations like these? Explore our picks of the best history books, the best history board games and our favourite HistoryExtra podcasts of 2020

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This content was last updated in February 2021